The history of science is filled with backstories that don’t get told until decades later. In the movie “Hidden Figures,” for example, the role of African American women in the success of the American space program was finally recognized and celebrated.

An article about the history of the discovery of a vaccine for polio included these passages:

“From 1945 to 1949, Isabel Morgan worked at Johns Hopkins on the problem of how to create a polio vaccine that used killed viruses to trigger our immunity mechanisms.”

Her first crucial test of her vaccine was a success. But…

“Nobody at Johns Hopkins picked up her work, and the killed virus vaccine had to wait for another six years before [Jonas] Salk was able to come up with his own version and distribute it widely. In the interim, two disastrous years of outbreak left thousands of children dead.”

The article, though, was not (just) another story of a woman whose accomplishments were overshadowed by a man who came later and got the credit. The title of the article is, “Isabel Morgan, Polio, and the High Cost of Marriage.”

The reason someone needed to pick up Isabel Morgan’s work was because she got married. That was the end of her career at Johns Hopkins. She “was expected to give up her life’s work to follow her husband as a matter of course.”

What I wondered about after reading the article was this: Is this a story of marriage in the 1950s, or is it also a story about contemporary marriage?

On the average, women who marry today have a greater say over how their lives will unfold than they did a half-century ago. Many continue to pursue careers after marrying, and sometimes, in heterosexual marriages, their work is the deciding factor in where the couple will live.

Still, I wonder. We already know, from the results of many studies, that marriage changes people’s ties to people outside of their marriage. Once people marry, they become more insular. For example, they spend less time with their friends, and they have less contact with their parents. Children can’t be blamed – even couples who do not have children are less connected to friends, parents, siblings, and neighbors than single people are. Sociologists use the concept of “greedy marriage” to explain these patterns.

Studies also suggest that, with one exception, married people do less volunteer work than single people do. (The exception is that married people volunteer more often for religious groups.)

Is modern marriage “greedy” in other ways, too – for example, in absorbing some of the time and energy and commitment that would otherwise be devoted to other pursuits, such as scientific discovery? Previously, I described the argument made by a philosopher that a disproportionate number of the most influential philosophers have been single. However, that argument was not based on a systematic study, and it was not specific to contemporary philosophers.

It is possible that the opposite happens: when each spouse can count on the other to do some of the chores of everyday life instead of covering them all themselves (as single people who live alone often do), maybe that frees up some time, and that time is dedicated to important work that benefits society. Or maybe there are still gender biases here, with husbands, more so than wives, finding that marriage frees up time for them to devote to work.

In contemporary American society, and in other nations as well, marriage is often extolled as a societal good. But are there ways in which it is not very good at all? It is a question that will never win any popularity contests, but it deserves to be asked and answered.

Photo by The Missouri Kintner Clan